Dillinger Four's 'Midwestern Songs of the Americas' Spawned a Scene of Copycats

Released 20 years ago, the debut album from the Minnesota band created a new template for pop-punk that bands are still trying in vain to replicate.

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Jun 19 2018, 2:30pm

The Shape of Punk revisits some of the seminal albums turning 20 years old in 2018, tracing their impact and influence on the future of the scene.

On paper, Dillinger Four doesn’t make a lick of sense. They’re a pop-punk band, but they look down on the genre, or at least that scene, with outright disdain. Their songs are structured like 80s straight-edge hardcore anthems, but the band is generally too drunk to play them. Their lyrics, which focus on socioeconomic inequities, are propped up by references to deceased Chicago mayors and Nelson Algren, but they’re just as quick to devolve into their take on regional TV jingles, too. If they only abandon a couple songs midway through their live shows, that’s considered a success. They rarely tour, much less play outside of the Midwest; and, if they had their druthers, they’d probably never leave Minneapolis ever again. In many ways, Dillinger Four should have been a local curiosity and nothing more. But their debut album, 1998’s Midwestern Songs of the Americas, proved they were much more important than they may have let on.

Formed by bassist-vocalist Patrick Costello and guitarist-vocalist Erik Funk after the break-up of their previous band, Angerhouse, Dillinger Four started once they decamped from the northern Chicago suburb of Evanston to Minneapolis. The Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul had a rich punk tradition, stretching back to the late 70s with bands like The Replacements and Hüsker Dü, and, in the 90s, it became a hotbed for crust punk thanks to the local label Profane Existence. When Costello and Funk landed there in 1994, they linked up with drummer Lane Pederson and guitarist Sloan Lorsung, wasting little time writing their first batch of songs. They’d release their debut seven-inch a year later and, by then, Lorsung had already left, making room for Billy Morrisette to enter as the band’s second guitarist and, along with Funk and Costello, their third vocalist.

Before they even had an album out, Dillinger Four was already an outlier, both in Minneapolis and in the larger punk landscape. Though they had the trappings of a pop-punk band, they eschewed the squeaky clean production that was all the rage and excised all the saccharine subject matter. They weren’t humorless, as Funk claimed that he and Costello started Dillinger Four because they wanted to do “a band that was fun,” and their live shows were proof of that. Their performances would function like town hall meetings, with Costello filibustering for minutes on end, taking his shirt off, and, on at least one occasion, having audience members rub lotion on his bare ass as he played.

After four years’ worth of singles, compilation appearances, and unpredictable live shows, Dillinger Four signed to Hopeless Records and released their first full-length album on June 23, 1998. Opening with a sample from an old test record, the kind people used to balance their speakers in the 60s, “O.K.F.M.D.O.A.” cemented the band’s sideways approach to punk. While plenty of punk bands were using samples, they were usually recognizable quotes from movies and TV shows. But Dillinger Four opted for obscurities. They used bargain bin oddities to give Midwestern Songs a patchwork, absurdist flow.

After 40 seconds, “O.K.F.M.D.O.A.” began in earnest, as Funk’s guitar rang out and he offered a state of the union address to the punk scene. After four lines delivered at a manic clip, the rest of the band joined him. Morrisette’s guitar dove straight into Funk’s, creating a thick layer of distorted power chords that never relented. Pederson’s drums were buried deep in the mix, his fills loose and wiley, and his smacks on a china cymbal sounding like he was punching his fist straight into a trash can. And then there was Costello’s bass, which emanated a deep, ugly curdle—the aural equivalent of a stomach ulcer. It was one part Lemmy and one part gibberish, and it would become Costello’s signature. The three vocalists traded off lines like the Beastie Boys, all before dovetailing into a mess of gang vocals. All this racket resembled a Midwestern dive bar after midnight, where the room fills with laughter and shit talk that gets louder with each passing minute. It was a mess, but it was a compelling one.

Pop-punk had plenty of purveyors but, as “O.K.F.M.D.O.A.” proved, no one had sounded quite like this. The closest comparison would have been to Crimpshine, an East Bay band that would influence the members of Operation Ivy and Green Day to form their respective acts, but this was like if Crimpshrine wanted to be Motörhead. Where Crimpshrine showed the seams in their songs, Dillinger Four bulldozed over them before anyone realized they were there. By ending “O.K.F.M.D.O.A.” on a dead stop and jumping straight into another sample that bled into the main riff of “#51 Dick Butkus,” the listener never had a second to consider how ridiculous this all was.

This claustrophobic approach wasn’t new, as bands like Spazz or Charles Bronson deployed it on every release, cutting samples into their minute-long songs until one track became indecipherable from the next. But that approach had yet to find its way to pop-punk. Where heavier bands used this tactic to heighten their sonic onslaught, Dillinger Four used theirs as a bearhug. Sure, they may have been covered in sweat and had beer dribbling down the front of their shirts, but it was an endearing gesture and an invitation into their world. With all open spaces snuffed out, either with samples or squalls of distortion, there were no breaks from what Dillinger Four was expressing with Midwestern Songs.

If that wasn’t enough to make Dillinger Four stand out from their peers, their weighty lyrical content all but sealed it. By avoiding pop-punk’s lyrical tropes, Midwestern Songs offered a lyric sheet that was actually worth reading. Given their lo-fi approach to recording, it was easy to lose sight of what the singers were saying, as their words got swallowed up by the ruckus unfolding behind them. Sifting through the lyrics revealed songs that were rich with references to Midwestern ephemera, and a caustic sense of humor that only blossomed as the record continued to spin.

While both Funk and Morrisette landed some hearty blows on the punk scene, in songs like “O.K.F.M.D.O.A.” and “Mosh for Jesus,” Costello’s jabs were the most impactful. On “Super Powers Enable Me To Blend In With Machinery,” Costello mined his shitty job for all it was worth, using his daily bus ride as fodder for invoking a class war: “But it's the slow decay of the day to day / That says take your paycheck, accept your place, and fade away.” He put on a similar display in the pre-chorus of “The Great American Going Out Of Business Sale,” which saw him, along with Morrisette, snarling, “Is freedom just a privilege of hatred guaranteed? / Is compassion just a second thought of hope brought to its knees? / Can dignity see fit to work past all it doesn't want to see?” Costello painted a bleak picture of the Midwest, with Klansmen filling conference halls and a homeless population being treated as a plague, yet he found hope in all that despair. As his rage boiled over, he dropped a mess of catchphrases, the kind that belied Dillinger Four’s uplifting nature: “I have eyes that see / I have a mind that thinks / I have a mouth that speaks / And goddamnit it will.” Where the band delivered each line like they were full of hubris, Costello closed the record on a note of compassionate unity.

For as dour as these songs could be, Dillinger Four never languished in it. There was always joy poking through their songs, and in the case of “Doublewhiskeycokenoice,” there was a reason to celebrate. If every other song on Midwestern Songs captured the stress of trying to make ends meet, “Doublewhiskeycokenoice” was the relieved exhale after the paycheck cleared. “I’ve got a basement full of booze and some blues to lose / I’ll ignore the whole world tonight / It will be alright,” sang Costello at the song’s end, holding out that final word in the hope that, maybe if he never stopped singing it, he could stave off Monday morning for a little while longer.

It’s a sentiment that plenty of people would latch onto, and none more so than The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn. In the 90s, Dillinger Four and Finn’s old band Lifter Puller were linchpins of the Minneapolis scene, so much so that the Midwestern Songs release show saw the two bands play together on a boat. But when Finn moved to New York City after Lifter Puller’s break-up, he brought his love of Dillinger Four with him. On “Certain Songs,” from The Hold Steady’s debut album Almost Killed Me, Finn sang that “D4 is for the lovers,” and in 2008, when his band released Stay Positive, the opening track, “Constructive Summer” namechecked “Doublewhiskeycokenoice.” Though Dillinger Four’s dalliances with indie-rock fame via Finn’s reverence for them, it showed how deep the band’s influence was, and how it could pop up at the most unexpected time.

While Dillinger Four getting a shout-out from The Hold Steady made sense, they’d get an even more surprising look from punk’s biggest band: Green Day. In 2004, Green Day released American Idiot, an album that would go on to sell an estimated 16 million records worldwide, revitalizing their career in the process. The album opened with with the title track, and the song’s main riff bared a striking resemblance to “Doublewhiskeycokenoice.” It could have been a coincidence, but given the fact that Green Day took Dillinger Four on tour in Japan in 2001, and Billie Joe Armstrong’s other band, Pinhead Gunpowder, released a split with Dillinger Four, the plausible deniability was out the window. To this day, rumors abound about whether or not Dillinger Four made any money from this, but it showed their songwriting prowess to the world, even if they never got the credit.

Outside of lyrical nods and potentially stolen riffs, plenty of bands took Dillinger Four’s sound and all but parroted it back to them. In Minneapolis, bands like Rivethead, Banner Pilot, Dear Landlord, and Off With Their Heads (who Costello moonlighted in) would all offer their versions of Dillinger Four’s sound, making gruff pop-punk that owed a huge debt to their forebears. Elsewhere in the Midwest, other bands would take up the cause too, with Chicago’s The Arrivals (who Costello would later join) giving a similar take on class-consciousness, and Cincinnati's The Dopamines making disgruntled songs about getting drunk their entire reason for being. It was only a matter of time before this sound mutated, by way of bands like Iron Chic and Nothington, essentially creating a third-wave of Dillinger Four clones that fill up The Fest’s undercard year after year.

Slowly but surely, Dillinger Four’s influence would begin to reach the coasts, due in large part to the community surrounding Punknews.org. The website would champion bands such as Dillinger Four, Hot Water Music, and The Lawrence Arms, labeling them “Orgcore,” and praising about any band that derived from this lineage. And while Dillinger Four remains the platonic ideal of that sound, they remain more subversive, and more lyrically verbose, than anyone that followed in their wake. This is due in large part to their descendants opting for lyrics solely about drowning their sorrows and wallowing in their pain, a kind of myopic self-pity that Dillinger Four never dealt in.

In 2018, Dillinger Four makes no more sense than they did in 1998. There’s an inherent foolishness in trying to imitate them, because Dillinger Four’s perverse honesty, and strange amalgam of influences, ensure no one will ever get it right. They remain singular, both for creating albums like Midwestern Songs, and for never trying to make the band their career. It’s why, even a decade removed from their last record, the band remains relevant; because no one else can fill their space.